Category Archives: Matsumoto Seichō

I Wish I Knew You*

If you ask ten people to tell you what someone is like, you’re likely to get ten different answers. Those answers might have a lot in common (e.g. everyone might say the person tells a good joke). But there are bound to be differences, because each of us has a slightly different perspective on people.

Sleuths, both fictional and real, have to keep this in mind when they’re investigating cases. It’s crucial to get a sense of what a murder victim was like; the victim’s personality, background, and so on often have a lot to do with the crime. But everyone sees that person a little differently, so the sleuth has to sift through those sometimes-conflicting accounts in order to get a true picture of the crime.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders. They’re all linked by cryptic warning notes that Poirot receives before each event, and by the fact that an ABC railway guide is found next to each body. The second of the murder victims is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard, who worked as a waitress in a café. As Poirot looks into that case, he talks to various people who knew her, and gets sometimes-conflicting portraits. Betty’s parents thought of her as a ‘good girl,’ who wasn’t nearly as ‘wild’ as some others are. Her co-workers at the café saw her as somewhat aloof – not one to mix with the others. Her sister, Megan, calls her ‘an unmitigated little ass’ who liked to flirt, and to be taken out dancing and to films, even though she had a steady boyfriend. Gradually, Poirot puts all of these different pieces together to form a picture of Betty; in the end, that helps him work out who killed her.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. When her body is found by a tarn near the Norwegian village of Granittveien, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate. Annie was well-known in the village, and well-liked. From different people in her life, they learn about different sides of her personality. Her teachers say that she did well in school. Her handball coach says she was a disciplined, skilled athlete, but Sejer finds she’d recently quit the team with only a perfunctory excuse. Her mother and stepfather say that she was mature and reliable. She had a boyfriend, but she wasn’t obsessed with him. All in all, she just doesn’t seem like the sort of person to get herself killed, as they saying goes. Little by little, Sejer and Skarre get put the pieces together and get a more comprehensive portrait of the victim. And when they do that, and trace her movements, they’re able to work out who would have wanted to kill her and why.

Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates is the story of the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is discovered under a Tokyo train early one morning. Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to investigate, and the work begins. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, there’s very little information about the victim. He wasn’t from Tokyo (it turns out that he’d come there from Okayama). So, there are no local family members or close friends to interview. When Imanishi traces Miki’s movements back to Okayama, he finds that the victim was well-liked and well-respected there. He was a simple retired store owner, with no vast fortune or bitter relatives. Little by little, Imanishi gets a gradually-developing portrait of the victim and learns that he had more depths to him than it seems at first, and a definite purpose in going to Tokyo. As the police talk to different people who knew the victim, or had met him, they learn about some things that someone wanted to keep quiet and was willing to kill to hide.

In Simon Wyatt’s The Student Body, Auckland Detective Sergeant (DS) Nick Knight is appointed to lead the Suspects Team in the investigation of the murder of fifteen-year-old Natasha Johnson. She was attending a school camp at Piha Beach when she was killed, so Knight and the team naturally focus plenty of attention on the other people at the camp. But they don’t forget Natasha’s family and other friends. From all of these people, Knight gets an emerging portrait of what the victim was like. Her parents report that she did well in school, was interested mostly in her studies, and didn’t have a boyfriend. She wasn’t known to be involved in drugs, gangs, or other dangerous activities, either, so it’s hard to find a viable motive. But, as the team talks to other people, and slowly finds out the truth about Natasha, they find that more than one person might have wanted her dead. Finding the killer is going to involve sifting through all of the contradictory statements about the victim, and really getting to the person she was.

And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, in which we are introduced to Captain Sam Wyndham. It’s 1919 Kolkata/Calcutta, and Wyndham has recently arrived to take up his duties with the police. He’s just gotten started when the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, is found in an alley behind a brothel. There’s a note stuffed in his mouth warning that ‘blood will run in the streets.’  The note seems to be a threat from a pro-independence group, so that’s one important avenue for exploration. And that will be a delicate matter, since the relations between the British and India are strained to say the least. What’s more, the victim was a high-ranking official. And it doesn’t make things easier that he was found in a compromising place. Still, Wyndham and his team get to work. One of their tasks will be to find out more about MacAuley, to see who might have wanted him dead. Little by little, as they get more information, they get a gradually-developing portrait of the man that’s sometimes conflicting. But, in the end, they find out who the killer really is and what the motive was.

Whenever there’s a murder, the police find out whatever they can about the victim, as it helps make it easier to find out who the killer is. Talking to witnesses and others who knew the victim can make for complications, as everyone sees a person differently. But, in the end, it also makes for a complete portrait of the victim. And, it can add interest to a story as we find out more about that person.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Revivalists.

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Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, Karin Fossum, Matsumoto Seichō, Simon Wyatt

And Meet the Best Innkeeper in Town*

Staying at an inn can be a really pleasant alternative to staying at a large, ‘corporate’ hotel. Inns are often smaller, more intimate, and more ‘homey’ than larger places. They have a long history, too – longer than that of the large hotel chains. And they’re quite varied.

One important difference between the larger hotels and inns is that, instead of being owned by corporations, and managed onsite, many inns are privately owned. This means that innkeepers and owners have a lot of say and personal stake in their inns. They can be interesting people in their own right, and they certainly figure in crime fiction. After all, innkeepers have a way of knowing what goes on in their places.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we are introduced to Mrs. Castle, who owns the Jolly Roger Hotel, a holiday destination on Leathercombe Bay. She prides herself on running a respectable establishment; she is painfully respectable herself, too. So, it’s a source of great distress when one of her guests is murdered. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled during a visit to the Jolly Roger. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is a natural suspect. But he has a provable alibi. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Through it all, Mrs. Castle is determined to preserve the good name of her hotel.

Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates is the story of the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is found early one morning under a Tokyo train. Inspector Imanishi Eitaro and his team take the case. The victim wasn’t from Tokyo, so there are no nearby family members of close friends. So, one important task for the police is to find out where the man was from and try to trace his movements. It takes time, but eventually, it’s established that Miki was from Okayama. He was taking what was, for him, a very unusual trip, so Imanishi starts with Okayama, and traces the man’s journey. This leads him to the Futami Inn, where Miki stayed briefly. The innkeeper isn’t exactly thrilled to have the police asking questions, since he’s concerned about the inn’s reputation. But he co-operates with the police, and so does the maid who waited on Miki. Between them, they provide Imanishi with interesting and important information.

Ross Macdonald’s short story The Singing Pigeon features his PI sleuth, Lew Archer. In it, Archer is heading north from Mexico into Southern California. He stops for the night at a motel called the Siesta. At first, the innkeeper doesn’t seem eager to rent out rooms, but finally, he gives Archer a room for the night. The next morning, Archer is awakened by a woman’s scream, and rushes to the room next door to see what’s going on. There’s blood on the bedsheets, and the young woman who was screaming starts to say something about it, but she’s quickly hushed up. The innkeeper, who is her father, says that one of the guests had a nosebleed, but Archer doesn’t believe it. Still, there’s not much he can do. He checks out of the Siesta and prepares to be on his way. Not far from the motel, though, he finds the body of a man. Making the obvious inference, he goes back to the Siesta, where it’s soon clear that nobody is telling him the truth about what really happened there. In the end, though, Archer finds out who the dead man was, and what his connection is to the Siesta and the family that owns it.

In Sujata Massey’s The Salaryman’s Wife, Tokyo-based art expert Rei Shimura decides to treat herself to a New Year’s trip to a traditional inn/B&B near Shiroyama, in the Japanese Alps. The inn is owned by Mayumi Yogetsu, who takes pride in her establishment, and wants to maintain its reputation. She keeps up traditional standards, and that makes for a bit of awkwardness with Shimura, who is more modern in her outlook. Still, the visit starts out well enough. Then, early one morning, Shimura discovers the body of another guest, Setsuko Nakamura. The police are called in, in the form of f Captain Jiro Okuhara, and the investigation gets underway. It’s all very difficult for Mayumi Yogetsu, who now has to cope with police everywhere, uncomfortable questions about the guests, and more. It’s not a lot easier for Rei Shimura, who is, at the very least, a ‘person of interest’ since she found the body. In the end, we learn who and what is behind the murder, but not before there’s great danger to Shimura, as well as another murder.

There’s also Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder (AKA The Murder Stone). In that novel, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife, Reine-Marie, take their annual anniversary trip to the Manoir Bellechoise. It’s a lovely, rural place that they both enjoy. There, they are greeted by the proprietor, Clementine Dubois, who knows them and makes them welcome. She makes it her business to know all of her guests, and to make everyone as comfortable as possible. And she is a consummate professional. But even her skills are put to the test by the members of the Finney family, who are also staying there. It’s a very dysfunctional group, and that makes things awkward for everyone. Then, there’s a murder. All sorts of old secrets come to the surface; so does a connection to another series character.

And I don’t think I could do a post about innkeepers without mentioning Joss Merlyn, who owns the eponymous inn in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Merlyn’s twenty-three-year-old niece, Mary Yellan, comes to stay with him and his wife, Patience; and, right away, there’s trouble. Merlyn is abusive and rude, and it’s clear he doesn’t want Mary there. Patience is terrified of her husband and does her best to placate him when she can. It’s a cold, eerie atmosphere, and Mary dislikes it immediately. Even the inn itself is chilling. No-one ever seems to stay there, and it’s not hard to see why. Then, Mary discovers that something eerie is going on at the inn. Neither her aunt nor her uncle will tell her anything, so she goes looking for answers on her own. And she soon finds herself in very real danger. Then, there’s a murder. And it’s very likely that Mary could be the next target.

Inns and other such small places can be warm, friendly, positive experiences. They can be unique, too, and often have a much more ‘personal touch.’ And the people who own and run them can be as interesting as the inns themselves.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Matsumoto Seichō, Ross Macdonald, Sujata Massey

There’ll be Swingin’, Swayin’, and Records Playing*

As this is posted, it’s sixty years since Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. As you’ll know, ‘the Motown sound’ has had a powerful influence on popular music. Even today, it’s easy to see its impact on modern pop, rock, rap, and other music.

But Motown wasn’t universally embraced, at least at first. In its way, it was revolutionary, and many people didn’t want to adjust to it. That in itself is interesting. But the fact is, there’ve been lots of major musical influences that were considered unacceptable at first. And we see that in crime fiction, just as we’ve seen it in real life.

Before there was Motown, there was ragtime, which grew to major popularity at the very end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th. There were, of course, other major changes in society at that time, and not everyone was eager to embrace them. And plenty of people didn’t see ragtime as ‘appropriate’ music. Readers get a look at the ragtime music culture in Larry Karp’s The Ragtime Kid, which begins in 1898. In in, we meet fifteen-year-old Brun Campbell, who loves playing and listening to the piano. One day, he happens to hear Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, and is entranced. He wants to know more about Joplin and ragtime music, and he can’t get that new sound out of his mind. So, a year later, he travels from Oklahoma, where he lives, to Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin lives. He’s wants to get started there and learn more ragtime, but instead, he gets mixed up in a case of murder. One night, he accidentally trips over the body of a young unknown woman. She is identified as Sallie Randolph, and it turns out that she has what used to be called a ‘checkered past.’ As Brun asks questions about her death, and does some growing in the process, readers also learn quite a lot about Joplin and the world of ragtime.

Jazz was also arguably a revolutionary change in music. As you’ll know, it became popular during the 1920s, a time of many other major changes. And those who loved jazz were often looked at with a lot of suspicion. Certainly ‘nice girls’ didn’t go to ‘those sorts of places,’ and listen to ‘that kind of music.’ And yet, jazz has had a profound impact on the music we listen to now. We see that reflected in crime fiction, too.

For example, in several of Agatha Christie’s novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Peril at End House, and Dumb Witness), we meet characters who are a part of the Jazz Age culture. They listen to the music and have adopted the styles and culture that are associated with jazz music of that time. And that lifestyle (and the music) are seen by some as not entirely respectable, perhaps even vaguely disreputable. That view of jazz isn’t the reason for the murders in those stories. But it’s interesting to see what the perception is.

There’s a similar perception in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the deaths of two people: General Fentiman (who is a member of Lord Peter’s club), and Fentiman’s wealthy sister, Lady Dormer. At one point, Wimsey is having a conversation with Fentiman’s grandson George and his wife. George has this to say about the effect of jazz and the jazz culture:
 

‘‘In the old days, heaps of unmarried women were companions, and… they had a much better time than they have now, with all this jazzing and short skirts…the modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her.’’ 
 

The assumption is that jazz music has had a dangerous influence on the younger generation.

After World War II, there were other music revolutions. The ‘Beat Generation’ changed the way people thought about music and the other arts. We see a bit of that in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The novel was published in 1961, a time of great change in Japan. Those changes are an important element in the background for this novel. In it, Tokyo police detective Imanishi Eitaro and his team look into the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body was discovered under a train. After some effort, Imanishi learns that the victim had come from Okoyama to Tokyo, but there’s no clear reason why. He was much beloved in Okoyama, and didn’t really know anyone in Tokyo, so there seems to be no motive for his murder. Little by little, Imanishi and the team discover connections between this death, a suicide, and the Avant-Garde Theatre, which is a haunt for musicians and other artists who are breaking new ground. One of the elements in the novel is the sense of unease about this new revolution in music and culture. These young people want to break with the traditional past. And that’s not always seen as a good thing.

And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses, much of which takes place in 1966 South East London, a mecca for Mods, Rockers, and lots of social and cultural change. Caught up in it all are sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. They’ve had a sheltered life and are considered ‘good girls.’ But they want to be a part of the social life of the era. One Friday night, they get their wish. They wangle permission from their mother to go to the Palais Royale, so long as their cousin Jimmy takes them and brings them home. The girls readily agree to this and get ready to go. The music is revolutionary and exciting, although it all makes Bridie a bit nervous. Before the night is over, there’s a tragedy that impacts the girls for the rest of their lives. And it has repercussions years later, when the body of a vagrant is found in a South London Underground station, and the police receive an anonymous letter confessing to the murder.

Whether you like Motown music or not, it’s hard to deny its influence. It really did represent a major change in music and has had a profound impact since it began. And, as we see from crime fiction, there’s often a bit of danger when something revolutionary comes along…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s Dancing in the Streets, made unforgettable by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. I know, fans of Mick Jagger and David Bowie. I’m just saying…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Larry Karp, Matsumoto Seichō, Steph Avery

Blues From Tokyo*

Tokyo has a long history, dating back to when it was a small fishing village called Edo. It’s also a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis – the most populated metropolis in the world – that attracts people from everywhere. It’s a banking, commercial, tourist, and business hub, too. And that’s to say nothing of the restaurants, art, theatre, nightlife, and more.

There’s actually so much to Tokyo that it would be impossible for me to do a post that would do justice to that complexity. But there is a great deal of crime fiction that explores different aspects of life in Tokyo at different times. And it’s interesting to see how Tokyo is depicted in that crime fiction

For instance, Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichirō novels take place in the late 1680s, when Tokyo was a much smaller city, still called Edo. Sano is a yoriki, a senior investigator and police officer. In Shinjū, the first in this series, he is assigned to look into a case of what seems to be a double suicide. The bodies of Niu Yukiko, a ‘well born’ young woman, and an artist named Noriyoshi, have been pulled from the Sumida River, and it’s believed they chose to die together because their circumstances wouldn’t let them marry. Sano’s superior officer makes it clear that his report should confirm the theory of suicide, and it’s not an impossible explanation for the deaths. But Sano is a good detective, and determined to do his duty, which means finding out the truth. And he begins to suspect that this is a case of murder. One big problem for him will be that the Niu family is rich, powerful, and completely opposed to him doing any investigating beyond a few perfunctory questions. Another is that the real truth about these deaths links them to other powerful people who are determined that Sano will keep quiet.

Post-World War II Tokyo was faced with several challenges, not the least of which was moving into the modern age as an international community. There was also the matter of the many social and other changes that came during the mid-20th Century. We see that reflected in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. In that novel, which takes place in 1961, the body of an unknown man is found under a train. Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to investigate, and he begins with the most basic question: the victim’s identity. That’s not as easy as it might seem, because the man had no identification. But after a time, he is identified as Miki Ken’ichi, the retired owner of a store in Okayama. He was very well regarded there and doesn’t seem to have had any enemies. What’s more, he didn’t tell anyone why he was going to Tokyo, or whom he might know there. So, it’s a major challenge to connect him with anyone who lives in the city. Then there’s another death, this time of Naruse Rieko, who worked at the Avant-Garde Theatre. And then another death, also connected with the theatre, occurs. On the surface, there seems nothing to connect Miki’s death with the others. But eventually, Imanishi puts together the pieces of the puzzle.

Keigo Higashino’s novels take place in contemporary Japan. They feature mathematician and physicist Yanabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. These novels are police procedurals, and in the first two, The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint, police detective Shunpei Kusanagi plays the ‘official’ lead investigating role. He’s an old friend of Yukawa’s, and so consults him on cases where the latter’s deep knowledge of physics and mathematics are useful. Along with the actual cases being investigated, readers also get a look at contemporary Tokyo’s lifestyles, cultures, and geography.

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World is an unflinching look at Tokyo’s young people. The novel follows four teenage friends: Toshiko Yamanaka, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama. Their lives are changed forever when the woman who lives next door to Toshiko is murdered. Toshiko hears crashes as the murder occurs, but she doesn’t see the actual event. Not long afterwards, she sees the victim’s son, Ryo. He doesn’t seem unduly upset, so Toshiko goes on about her business. Later, when the police come to her house to question her, Toshiko guesses that Ryo might be the murderer. But she decides to protect him and lies to the police about seeing the boy. When Ryo steals her bicycle and her telephone, Toshiko is sure he is guilty. Then, he starts to contact her, as well as her three friends. Before long, all five are caught up in a web of cover-ups that end up having truly tragic consequences. Along with other things, the novel shows the dark side of what it’s like to be a teen in today’s Tokyo. Kirino’s other novels also address some of the psychologically darker sides of today’s Tokyo.

There are also scenes of life in Tokyo in Kazuhiro Kiyuki’s Shield of Straw. The story begins when Takaoki Ninagawa, of Japan’s wealthiest and most influential people, suffers a devastating loss. His granddaughter, Chika, goes missing and is later found raped and murdered. DNA samples establish that the killer is a man named Kunihide Kiyomaru. Ninagawa decides not to depend on the Japanese justice system to punish Kiyomaru. Instead, he offers a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who finds and kills Kiyomaru and can prove it. When he hears about this bounty on his head, Kiyomaru comes out of hiding and turns himself in Fukoaka. He’ll have to face trial in Tokyo, though, so someone will have to bring him from Fukoaka to Tokyo. That someone turns out to be SP (Special Police) officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department (MPD). Mekari and his team travel to Fukuoka to pick up their prisoner and bring him back. But that’s not going to be easy. There are many thousands of people who are going to try to kill Kiyomaru. And there’s nothing to say that even the police escorting him couldn’t be vulnerable to temptation. The real question becomes: can the team bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo before he’s killed?

There are, of course, many more crime novels that take place in Tokyo. I’m sure you’ll think of plenty more than I could. Which have stayed with you?

 

ps. Thank you, Japan-Guide, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Creation.

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Filed under Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Keigo Higashino, Laura Joh Rowland, Matsumoto Seichō, Natsuo Kirino

When Are You Free to Take Some Tea With Me?*

An interesting post from Tim at Informal Inquiries has got me thinking about tea. Yes, tea. If you think about it, tea’s played an important role in history and politics for centuries. And that’s to say nothing of its role in economics, sociology, and lots more. Plenty of people swear by tea’s medicinal qualities, too.

With all of this going for it, it’s not surprising at all that crime fiction is steeped with tea and tea shops. And, of course, there are myriad scenes where a character makes tea at home. There are far too many references for me to mention in this one post, but here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to Cora Lansquenet. When Cora’s brother, Richard Abernathie, dies, the rest of the Abernethie clan, including Cora, attend his funeral. At the gathering, Cora blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, but privately, several members of the family begin to wonder whether Cora was right. Then Cora herself is murdered the next day. Now, it seems quite clear that Cora must have been right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks for Hercule Poirot’s help in finding out the truth about these two deaths, and Poirot agrees. In the process, he and Mr. Entwhistle get to know the Abernethie family – all of whom were very much in need of the money that their patriarch left. They also meet Cora’s companion, Miss Gilchrest. Here’s what she says about her background:
 

‘‘When my little teashop failed – such a disaster – it was the war, you know. A delightful place. I called it the Willow Tree and all the china was blue willow pattern – sweetly pretty-  and the cakes really good – I’ve always had a hand with cakes and scones.’’
 

To Miss Gilchrest’s mind, keeping a teashop is the ‘essence of gentility.’ Certainly, tea shops like the one she had are woven into the culture in a lot of towns and villages – and stories about them.

There’s a very interesting example of a tea ceremony in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Tokyo Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to the team that investigates the death of an unknown man whose body is found under a train. At first, it’s difficult to find out who the victim was, but after some slow, patient work, he is identified as Miki Ken’ichi, the retired owner of a store in Okayama. Since the trail may lead to the man’s home town, Imanishi travels there. One of the people he interviews is Kirihara Kojuro, who knew the victim for years, and who’s been in town for a very long time. Kirihara is a traditionalist, so he formally invites Imanishi into his home, and serves him tea, using the traditional ritual, in a room set aside for the purpose. It’s an interesting look at the Japanese way of drinking tea. And, as it happens, Kirihara has some interesting information and perspective to share.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. Our best knowledge is that tea was invented and first drunk in China. So, as you can imagine, the custom of drinking tea is an integral part of life in Shanghai, and there are many tea shops, stands, and so on. There are plenty of scenes, too, that have such places as backgrounds. For instance, in Enigma of China, Chen is looking into the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. He’d recently been arrested in connection with a corruption scandal, and at first, it’s believed he committed suicide rather than face the public shame of a trial. But Chen isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and quietly starts to ask questions. One of his leads is a man named Melong, who runs an online watchdog group. The government monitors such groups very carefully, and Melong wants to keep a low profile. So, rather than come to the police station, he meets Chen in a local tea shop:
 

‘The waitress came into the room carrying a thick tea menu and long-billed bronze kettle.
Chen ordered ginseng oolong, and Melong chose Pu’er, the Yunan tea.
‘Enjoy your tea,’ the waitress said, bringing out the tea leaves from drawers in the table, putting each into a teapot, then pouring hot water from a kettle into their respective pots. ‘Snacks, which are on the house, are also listed on the menu.’’
 

Melong is an interesting character, and the scene shows the importance of the local tea shop for finding out information.

Tea also has a very long history in India. We see that, for instance, in Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s The Masala Murder, which takes place in Kolkata/Calcutta. In it, PI Reema Ray investigates the murder of a gourmet food importer named Prakash Agarwal. As it turns out, Ray had interviewed Agarwal as a part of her ‘day job’ working for a lifestyle magazine called Face. So, she remembers him (not very fondly), and his widow. Now, Mrs. Agarwal has asked Ray to find out what happened to him. And it turns out that there are plenty of suspects. Agarwal was not ethical in his marriage, his business, or much of anything else, and he made plenty of enemies. There’s an interesting scene in which Ray recalls her interview with the victim. On the surface, it’s a very pleasant interview, with gourmet tea served, and so on. But it makes her very uneasy, and the fine quality of the tea doesn’t do much to lift the suspense.

Of course, tea isn’t always soothing and ‘civil’ anyway. Just ask Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, who are regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. They work in Chapman’s bakery, and live in the same building. Their dream is to become television stars, and whenever there’s a bit part on any show, they audition. So, for Kylie and Gossamer, staying thin is critical. That’s why, in Devil’s Food, they’re so interested when they hear about a new diet tea that’s supposed to help in quick weight loss. Instead of helping them lose weight, though, the tea poisons them. Now, Chapman and her friend, Meroe, have to find out what, exactly, the poison is, so that they can help Kylie and Gossamer.

And, no discussion of tea shops and tea in crime fiction could possibly be complete without a mention of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is the owner of Thyme and Seasons, an herb shop that includes special herbal teas. She is also the joint owner of Thyme for Tea, a teashop that’s built behind her herb shop. Bayles lives and works in the small town of Pecan Springs, Texas, which is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. Bayles gets involved in more than one mystery because she’s ‘plugged in’ to the local network.

See what I mean? Tea has been an essential part of many cultures for thousands of years. So, it’s no wonder we see so much of it in crime fiction. It’s even featured on several excellent book blogs, such as Bitter Tea and Mystery, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the kettle’s boiling…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Lovely Rita. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Matsumoto Seichō, Qiu Xiaolong, Susan Wittig Albert